Even with first Niki Terpstra and then Philippe Gilbert leading the chase behind him, there was still plenty of encouragement for Oscar Freire (Katusha) from the throngs of Dutch and Belgian supporters huddled on the slopes of the Cauberg at the end of Amstel Gold Race on Sunday.
Freire had surprisingly clipped off the front of the peloton with 7 kilometres to go, an unusual move from a sprinter but somehow entirely fitting for what might prove to be the final Amstel Gold Race of this most atypical rider's career.
He had 13 seconds in hand over the chasers as he began the final haul up the Cauberg, and enthusiastic cries of ‘Oscarito' began to gain purchase among the crowds watching proceedings on the big screen at the top as he maintained his advantage on the early slopes.
Unfortunately for Freire, while Philippe Gilbert's fearsome acceleration behind petered out as the road began to flatten, his effort saw three riders, including winner Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) sweep past the veteran Spaniard in the final 200 metres.
"Sometimes you just have to have a go," Freire told Cyclingnews of his foray off the front. "I thought that today I could go all the way, it's just a pity that in the end I was missing just a little bit."
Already a top ten finisher at Amstel Gold Race on five occasions, including three previous times on the Cauberg in the colours of Rabobank, Freire clearly felt that if he were ever destined to win a bunch sprint on the climb, he would have done so before the ripe old age of 36.
"You never know [what will happen] if you come to the finish all together in a group," he said. "I just saw that I was going well."
With Joaquim Rodriguez the favourite for victory after appearing to have an extra gear on the sharp climbs of Tour of the Basque Country last week, it initially seemed as though Freire was looking to lay the groundwork for a move from his teammate on the Cauberg. With his usual candour, Freire admitted that he was thinking only of his own chances.
"No, I just knew for myself that controlling it all in the finale would be difficult so I just tried myself but it didn't work out," he said.
Rodriguez said afterwards that Freire had gone off the front with his blessing, as he not confident of his own chances on the Cauberg: "I suffered from the cold weather more than expected, so I spoke with Freire. He was in a good shape, so we agreed that he should attack."
Initially, Freire's attack had seemed to develop almost by chance, shortly after a more tentative probe from Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) had been snuffed out. "I think sometimes when you know that it's the moment, you have to try," Freire said. "At that time I tried. I was alone. I could not wait when you are alone."
After missing out on E3 Prijs Harelbeke victory due to his confusion over the precise location of the finish line, Amstel Gold Race marked Freire's second near miss of the classics campaign. Given that it seems likely to be his final season as a professional, Freire could be forgiven for cursing his misfortune, and raging at how Philippe Gilbert's acceleration brought Gasparotto and Sagan back into play.
Amstel Gold Race seems forever destined to be the Great White Whale to Freire's Ahab, but he was typically sanguine in his response to defeat.
"It was really shit because the last 200 was just too far to the finish," he said with a half smile, and then shrugged. "But it's ok."
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